Tragedy is traditionally meant to provoke pity and fear. But the world is in danger of reacting to the Zimbabwean tragedy with different emotions: resignation and relativism.

The resignation stems from the idea that nothing short of invasion is going to dislodge a brutal and ruthless dictator such as Robert Mugabe. Nobody wants to invade Zimbabwe, goes the argument, so there is nothing to be done. The relativists chip in by pointing out that there are plenty of other tragedies in Africa: Congo, Somalia, Darfur. Why make a particular fuss about Zimbabwe?

But the resignation is not justified – and so neither is the relativism. Zimbabwe can still be saved from economic and political destruction. It is not just another African tragedy. But it is urgent that action is taken now – while the political situation is still in flux.

By using guns and machetes to force Morgan Tsvangirai out of the presidential election, President Mugabe has secured his grip on power. But it is not true that everything short of invasion has been tried to prise him loose. Zimbabwe is still a member of important international organisations and economic sanctions on the country have been limited. International isolation of Mr Mugabe – combined with tougher, targeted, economic sanctions – might still force change.

Britain, the US and the European Union need to cut off the access to hard currency and international banks that allows Mr Mugabe and his cronies to float above Zimbabwean hyper-inflation. Some of the big names in western business also need to re-examine their ties with Zimbabwe. Barclays Bank, which was forced to quit apartheid South Africa, still operates happily in Zimbabwe.

But the biggest source of new pressure on the Mugabe regime has to come from its southern African neighbours. Mr Mugabe has sought to portray the democratic opposition in Zimbabwe as the tools of white colonialists and racists. By still treating Mr Mugabe as a man who should be respected for his role in the liberation struggle, African governments are in danger of giving credence to that argument.

If, by contrast, the main regional organisations – the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – took the unprecedented step of expelling Zimbabwe, they would strip the Mugabe regime of its last fig-leaf of legitimacy.

The stakes are particularly high for South Africa. Unfortunately, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa is a man who seems unable to face unpleasant truths. He has denied the truth about Aids; he denies the truth about crime in South Africa; and he now denies the truth about Zimbabwe.

While Mr Mugabe’s thugs have murdered their way back into power, Mr Mbeki has twittered about even-handedness, reconciliation and the formation of a government of national unity. This policy has been a disaster for Zimbabwe and a disaster for South Africa itself.

Mr Mbeki says that “Zimbabwe is not a province of South Africa.” But South Africa has more potential power over its neighbour than any other country in the world.

In the late 1970s it was the decision by the apartheid government of South Africa to drop its support for white minority rule in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) that forced the government of Ian Smith to negotiate.

The white government of South Africa made a pragmatic decision that supporting a pariah state next door was no longer in its interests. South African threats to cut off power supplies to the Rhodesian government were critical in forcing the end of white minority rule.

Mr Mbeki should recall that history now. Pragmatism, as well as principle, demands that he put real pressure on Mr Mugabe. That pressure should start with leading the effort to ostracise him. It should then extend to economic ties with Zimbabwe. The use of electric power is worth looking at – although it may not be as effective a threat as it was in the 1970s, because Zimbabwe gets its power from many sources. South African companies also have big investments in Zimbabwe’s mines.

It is hugely in South Africa’s interests to try to force change. The chaos in Zimbabwe is destabilising South Africa itself. Millions of Zimbabwean refugees have crossed the border. That has provoked resentment and violence within South Africa.

South Africa’s international image is also suffering. Outsiders look at Zimbabwe and wonder: are they seeing a vision of South Africa in 20 years time?

The South African government regards such questions as ridiculous – if not racist. But South Africa is already suffering from power shortages and a rampant crime problem. One-party rule – albeit with elections – is now entrenched. The fear that South Africa, too, could eventually slide into chaos is only stoked by Mr Mbeki’s apparent blindness to events in Zimbabwe.

One of the few heartening aspects of the current situation is that it is increasingly clear that South African public opinion has turned against Mr Mugabe. Jacob Zuma, Mr Mbeki’s likely successor as president, has been much more outspoken in condemning the Mugabe government than Mr Mbeki. South African trade unions laudably refused to unload a shipment of arms bound for Zimbabwe.

Mr Mbeki has pursued the path of mediation and moderation for what may have been honourable reasons. But that path has proved to be a dead end. Robert Mugabe will not be talked out of power. It is time to try something much tougher.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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